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The Ethic of Care. Why Care Policies Need to Recognize the Interdependence of Us All

17 Nov 2016

  • Author(s): Ruth Evans

The Ethic of Care. Why Care Policies Need to Recognize the Interdependence of Us All
This blog is published as part of The Transformation Conversation: Blogs on the UNRISD Flagship Report 2016 and Agenda 2030. The series explores what it takes to design and implement innovative eco-social policies that will lead to transformative change and fulfil the potential of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Together with the evidence, analysis and case studies in the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report they are the part of the global conversation on implementing of the SDGs.

Care is finally receiving more of the attention it deserves in international development policy. Unpaid care and domestic work is explicitly recognized in Sustainable Development Goal 5, "Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”. Target 5.4 indicates this recognition should take place, “through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies”. The UNRISD 2016 Flagship report joins calls for unpaid care and domestic work to be recognized, reduced and redistributed (known as the "Triple R" framework) by means of care policies.

The first "R" in the "Triple R" framework is recognizing unpaid care and domestic work. This means challenging social norms and gender stereotypes that 'naturalize' care as women’s duty, undervalue it and make it invisible in policy design and implementation. Not only women's, but children's care work needs to be recognized. Rather than using the language of 'burden' and 'dependency', care needs to be re-framed to recognize the vulnerability and interdependence of us all. While care is often constructed as 'women's work', as part of their so-called 'natural' nurturing roles as mothers, children, particularly girls, also take on substantial and regular care and domestic work in households where a parent, sibling or relative has a need for care related to young or older age, disability, chronic illness, mental health or substance misuse. Despite significant research evidence that children's care work can have a range of negative impacts, as well as some positive impacts, it is often neglected within public policy. Recent research in Senegal has also shown that the death of a parent, sibling or adult relative can lead to increases in young people's care work, which can have detrimental impacts on their well-being, education and employment outcomes.

Alongside the limited recognition of care work, the framing of care in policy discourses is also problematic. Those who have specific care needs, such as children, older people and disabled people, are commonly referred to as 'dependents', which reinforces negative stereotypes and assumptions. Children, older people and disabled people are constructed as passive recipients and a 'care burden' rather than recognizing that they may also actively provide care and support.

Ethic of care

An ethic of care instead starts from the perspective that we are all vulnerable and will need care at different points throughout the lifecourse, as argued by Joan Tronto in her 1995 book Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care. An understanding of the inter-dependence of our lives further indicates that there are no fixed distinctions between the identities and roles of those who are 'care-givers' and 'care-receivers'. Indeed, the fluidity of caring roles and interdependent nature of the care that both children and parents living with HIV provide to each other is much in evidence in research in Tanzania and the UK.

This perspective does not, however, gloss over the very real emotional tensions and resource constraints that can undermine family members' ability to provide 'good care'. Such pressures stem from the severely limited public welfare services, health care and social protection available in resource-constrained settings, alongside wider global inequalities in care resources (paywall). An ethic of care perspective, therefore, views care as a political issue which should be the starting point for the development of public policies.

Rather than being exclusively a 'care burden', people living with HIV have helped to shape global HIV care and support policies and actively participate in health care delivery, home-based care and peer support in many resource-constrained contexts, such as northern Uganda. Such interdependent caring relations challenge conventional assumptions about 'service users' being 'dependent', passive recipients of health care.

Drawing by Grace (aged 19, Tanzania) who along with her siblings, cared for her mother in bed over a period of several years: 'This is me sitting with my mum. She is talking to me, that is why I am sitting down and she’s drinking tea. I like staying at home and having a nice time with mum and my younger siblings'. (from: Evans, R. and Becker, S. (2009)
Children Caring for Parents with HIV and AIDS: Global Issues and Policy Responses, The Policy Press: Bristol, p.147).

Interdependent caring relations

The language of 'dependency' also potentially conflicts with disability rights perspectives and undermines disabled parents' rights and capabilities in caring for their children. As Jenny Morris and others have argued, disabled people are parents and do care for their children, even if those children also help to provide support for their parents. Furthermore, if public policies provided adequate support, disabled parents would not need to rely on the assistance of their children.

Rather than using the term 'dependents', I would prefer to talk about 'people with specific care needs'—whether these are related to young or older age, chronic illness, mental health, disability, substance misuse or bereavement. This phrase is underpinned by a more holistic understanding of the complexity of caring relations and I feel better reflects the dignity of people experiencing particular ‘troubles’ in their lives, within a broader landscape of care. It is more in line with an ethic of care and human rights perspective that recognizes and re-values care—the first critical 'R' on the pathway towards the development of transformative public policies, as called for in the care chapter of the UNRISD 2016 Flagship Report.

Ruth Evans is an Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Reading.

Photo at the top: HelpAge International (Creative Commons via Flickr)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.